Thursday, March 06, 2008

A touch of class

Marco Attila Hoare has written a post critical of the left's attachment to the politics of class and, surprisingly, argues that it inevitably leads to moral relativism.

I find the link with relativism tenuous, to say the least, however, this is not the only problematic feature of his argument. It seems to me that he equivocates between three distinct positions.

The first is borne on his tide of despair at the attitude of the SWP to the crisis in Bosnia. Here he rejects the doctrinal rigidity that resulted in a refusal to face the reality of the struggle for national self-determination against aggressive Serb nationalism and later spawned the "red-brown alliance" of the Stop the War Coalition. I fully agree, but this is a reflection more of the inanities of the SWP than being a necessary consequence of a class analysis.

The second is fully in tune with other types of radicalism. This amounts to a rejection of the idea of the centrality of the industrial working class as the sole, specific agent of historical change. You will find it in some strands of Anarchism. For example, thinkers such as Patrick Geddes and Murray Bookchin favoured local and global peoples' action instead of class-based movements and parties. On the surface, it would seem that Hoare is writing in support of this perspective. However, Geddes and Bookchin were genuine radicals seeking fundamental change to the material and cultural structures of society, whereas Hoare argues that the role of the left is to act to promote a range of universal principles "that apply to the whole of humanity" rather than to promote a single group, a more nebulous and limited ambition.

This isn't where he started though. He began his post by being critical of an aspect of Nick Cohen and Andrew Anthony's analysis that one of the factors that has led the liberal left into its current pickle is that it has divorced itself from the working class. This is an odd target. What Cohen and Anthony are arguing is that the left is indeed indulging in class politics; it is just that it is the wrong class. They suggest that, rather than represent the interests of the working class, the liberal left have completely abandoned them, embraced the 'virtues' of inequality and justified their elite status through the comforting idea of 'meritocracy', all the while neglecting working class concerns in the smug pursuit of a communalist politics that does not threaten to raise their taxes.

And here comes the crunch. How are universal principles to be exercised in an unequal world? How are human rights to be fully realised without economic security, or, in many parts of the the world, basic subsistence? In a conflict of interest between the privileges of the few and the rights of the many, whose side are you on?

To abandon pragmatic judgement of where people's interests may lie in favour of a rigid historicism is clearly foolhardy. But surely the left's concern is with the exploited, the outcast and the oppressed. Its support lies with whoever would be their liberators. A left that fails to stand with the oppressed against their oppressors is not worthy of the name. And, whether he likes it or not, this is a class analysis.

(Ta Will - again)


ad said...

I can’t help but think of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. The Middle, or a part of it, overthrows the High, enlisting the support of the Low by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty, equality etc. Once secure in power, they eliminate the old High, and thrust the Low back into their old position.

From this point of view, the real enemy is the rival ruling class. That is what must be dispossessed and then destroyed. All other alliances and rivalries are purely tactical, to be justified by whatever argument comes to hand.

mikeovswinton said...

Two things come to mind here, and they aren't really very much to do with the original statement to which you are responding.

First is this; in your final para, I do think you actually need to be clear just what you mean by class. I don't want to come on all Professor Joad, but to talk about a class analysis could be something very specific - see "spgb gray"'s response to the posting of this essay at Harry's place where we get a lesson in Marxist class theory as it is, was and ever shall be until the workers vote for the SPGB. Equally it could be something rather more diffuse. And I think that to be fair to Marko Hoare different meanings here would have different implications for his analysis.

The second point is that I am far from clear that it is useful calling Geddes or indeed Bookchin an anarchist. There's too much baggage with that term, a point Bookchin saw by the end of his life - he explicitly repudiated anarchism in around 1995. Chapter and verse available if needed.

The Plump said...


I seem to remember us having that conversation about Geddes somewhere else :-). I still think that he should be seen as an Anarchist. Bookchin did indeed renounce the title Anarchism but retained all the ideas that he described as Anarchist previously and, until the end, remained a strong presence within Anarchist circles.

On the intellectual baggage - First, I blame Proudhon; bloody silly name. Second, I subscribe to the idea of it as a broad intellectual movement rather than the narrow one that, say, Marie Fleming, describes.

Finally, my, admittedly unclear, point in the final paragraph was to say that some form of class analysis was inevitable for the left. I didn't want to say which class analysis - I'm not brave enough to go there.

And if you have the energy and inclination to read all the HP comments you definitely need your own blog :-)

mikeovswinton said...

On HP ;I gave up about 3 days ago.

On Geddes; this will run and run!

On Bookchin; his final essays in my view do mark something of a shift,if arguably only at the margins. I'd question if he was ever an anarchist as such in that he always argued for certain things anarchists in general don't argue for. (Majority rule being one such thing.)

Stupid name? Maybe. How about Colin Ward's term Acratia?

Waterloo Sunset said...

On Bookchin, "yes, but..." is the correct answer I think. Mike doesn't need to provide chapter and verse on this one. It's something anybody at all familar/interested in Bookchin should already be fully aware of.

To an extent though, I think Bookchin has always been somewhat wary of the term. He often prefered to use "libertarian municipalism" or "social ecology" instead. I don't think this was an unexpected development from him really.

However, while he rejected the term, he didn't disown his earlier work on issues like the Spanish Civil War- that's in stark contrast to his Marxist-Leninist past which he did reject entirely.

And not only does he cite the Spanish Revolution as one of the case studies, but he explicitly said that he saw Libertarian Municipalism as a realisation of anarchist aims, not as something that was in opposition to it:

Indeed, in my view, libertarian municipalism, with its emphasis on confederalism, is precisely the "Commune of communes" for which anarchists have fought over the past two centuries.


I can't help feeling this is something of a 'family dispute', really only of much interest to members of the libertarian left and/or politics geeks. It's like the differences between anarchism and council communism. They're theoretically important, but they sound pretty similar to those outside those traditions. That's complicated because the various strands of the libertarian left has always borrowed theory off each other. The council communists were influenced by anarchism. Modern anarchism is influenced by situationism. Situationism is influenced by council communism.

So in the end, if Bookchin decided he'd rather not be identified as an anarchist, I'm minded to go with that, because it doesn't seem that important to me. However, it doesn't stop me from veering between calling myself an anarchist and calling myself a libertarian socialist (which pretty much is just semantics- it depends on my mood and how much the anarchist movement is pissing me off at the time), despite the fact that I'm probably closer to Bookchin politically, then I am to any other single theorist. I certainly think he's got far more in common with class struggle anarchism then militant liberals like Chomsky do.

You also can't underestimate the effects of his disdain for lifestyleism on this decision. The US anarchist movement suffers from this far more then any other country. It's the only country I can think of where the primitivists have any significant influence in the anarchist movement. In the UK, their entire role is to be the punchline in several sectarian jokes.

Off Bookchin, a belief in direct democracy (including an element of majority rule) isn't alien to all anarchists. This one's actually been being fought over internally for some time. As the article The Tyranny of Consensus- points out, this isn't a part of historical anarchism.

After that rather extensive tangent, onto Marco Attila Hoare's article.

I didn't get the sense that he was coming near to the second argument you mention, in the way you seem to have picked up. While it's true that anarchism has been far less attached to the notion of the industrial working class being the only potential for change then Marxism has, generally that's been done by defining the working class more broadly. In particular, the peasants and what Marx would consider the lumpen. So it stems from a different class analysis, rather then from rejecting a class analysis all together.

But yes, that article as a whole struck me as something of a misfire.

The SWP were a particuarly odd group to choose to concentrate on, being that, rhetoric aside, they've largely swapped a class analysis for an 'anti imperialist' one. Cynically, I can't help thinking that Hoare was playing to the gallery there. Attacks on the SWP are always going to go down well with a lot of HP posters. Even if they're a bit of a strawman in this case.

What would have been more interesting for me is if he'd attempted to do one of two things.

Either examine the role of the Labour Left, and their views on class. With reference to things like the welfare state. That would have been a far harder target, but I think it would have been a fairer one.

Alternatively, actually choose one of the groups that does have a position where everything is reducible to class. The obvious ones for me if somebody is going to do that are the Independent Working Class Association, Class War and Red Action. There are others, but those are the best known. It's not even that he wouldn't have been able to use the latter two to argue that a class analysis was harmful. Class War are of course best known for their "Page 3 Hospitalised Copper" type stuff. And Red Action were avid supporters of the IRA.

On yet another tangent (sorry, I do this a lot), Red Action are fascinating if you're looking at the left's real attitude to the working class. I'm certainly not painting them as angels. They reveled in their unpopularity amongst most of the left. And several members were a bit too quick to punch people, particuarly when the beer was flowing. But the standard left position was that they were "stupid violent thugs with no politics". Anyone that's read any of their theoretical stuff knows that isn't true. So you had a left largely dominated by the middle classes. Sneering at one of the few genuinely working class groups in terms very similar to traditional negative stereotypes of the working class.

In essence, I think there's two major problems with Hoare's analysis.

Firstly, he completely ignores the question of how these 'common values' to be determined. Aside from a vague reference to the enlightenment. He doesn't seem to have even considered that those groups with power in society have more of a chance to impose their vision on the world as it is.

Secondly, he assumes you can apply equal values to those not in an equal position. Take giving to charity as an example. That's pretty much recognised as positive by the vast majority of people. But is it really valid to expect it of someone struggling to feed their family?

This is possibly unfair, but I was reminded several times of Ridley's infamous "why should a duke pay more then a dustman"? comment throughout the article.

To finish off, I'm going to try and look at why I think that what would actually be more suitable far left groups to examine are largely ignored. By both him and Cohen- I think this is a shared flaw, despite their other differences. (I haven't read Andrew Anthony's book, so can't comment).

Some of it is simply that they're both writing about the traditions they're most familar with. And they're both ex Trots. Part of that is a simple matter of knowledge. But I think there may also be an element of "mea culpa" there. Much like the ex Stalinists who ran round telling us the left had been discredited because the Soviet Union turned out not to be a socialist paradise. And I feel now like I did then. If you feel the need to disown your past opinions, fair enough. But your previous dodgy political judgement is not my fault. I was never a cheerleader for dubious 'anti-imperalist' groups.

Secondly, I think there is a rhetorical element to it as well. I suspect they both partly looked for groups that would fit their already decided thesis. If you're writing about the left's support for Islamism, statements like this- aren't particuarly convenient. Likewise, the IWCA aren't helpful if you're trying to claim the far left has abandoned the working class, as Nick Cohen is. It would be almost impossible to use that argument and then mention the IWCA, without it being to their benefit.

While Hoare and Cohen obviously have genuine differences, in some ways I think the former has followed a logical progression from the views of the former. Because if you're going to argue that

No one on the Left apart from Communists believes in a classless society and there are hardly any Communists left.

(Cohen in FrontPage-

You're actually accepting fully that there will always be a ruling class and a working class. At that the former will always be better off. If that's your position, it actually makes perfect sense to say that you shouldn't side with one over the other. If a class based society is the natural order of things, then the people at the top are merely fufilling a necessary role. Really the best you can ask for in that case is paternalism.

mikeovswinton said...

Sorry to come back on Bookchin. In this one I'm a (paid) politics geek rather than having a real political stake. Having said that, Bookchin seems to me to be one of 3 recent anarchists (when he was one) to have something to say beyond the reaches of the movement. For my money the others are Ward and "Hakim Bey", but I'm expecting a bruising riposte there. That said, I'm not an anarchist, and I got something from their writings. Bookchin's shift towards the end I described as being at the margins. Thinking again, I'm not so sure. 3 comments from his final essay, The Communalist Project deserve attention. They are all in footnotes, interestingly.
1. His view that the revolutionary left were wrong not to support the allies in WW2. (p.90, AK press edition of "Social Ecology and Communalism").
2. The notion that the constituents of a confederation could only leave that confederation if the whole of the confederation approves such withdrawal. (p.98)
3. His view that Communalism - his final choice of term for his viewpoint - was an entirely distinct ideology and not a dimension of anarchism.(p,97)
I think that taken together these are points that put Bookchin's late ideas into interesting perspective. I'm not saying he's right or wrong, but I don't think these comments have received the attention that they deserve.

The Plump said...

My final word on Bookchin is that he was such an irascible old get that he couldn't cope with being part of a movement of which he wasn't the sole fount of wisdom and all the others were adoring acolytes.

Good tactic this. When losing an argument to the better informed go ad hominem - you know it makes sense!

mikeovswinton said...

The thing is, Pete, he sometimes seems to have taken the ball home and stopped playing when he was WINNING the argument.

The Plump said...

Though I was talking about myself rather than Bookchin in my second paragraph. Insult him and hope you get away with it :-)

will said...


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